Distance Swimming's Changing Perception


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

A little over one year ago, during one of the London Olympics’ all-time great performances, NBC cut toKatie Ledecky celebrates her win and American record in the 400m free. (Medium) commercial. It was smack-dab in the middle of Katie Ledecky’s 800m freestyle, when, at just age 15, the teen was en route to an instant legendary Olympic performance.

The cutting-to-commercial move was generally lambasted on social media, although it was something that had been done for many Olympics. Not many people, executives probably figured, want to sit through repetitive laps of an 800m or 1500m freestyle. The ads were likely already pre-planned and pre-bought. No one expected Ledecky to do what she did, so, cut to commercial.

My, things have changed.

At this summer’s World Championships, when Ledecky stepped up to the blocks of the 800m freestyle, I was curious if we TV viewers would see the entire race. Had Ledecky, now a superstar and Olympic gold medalist, changed the perception of distance swimming to the point where commercials had to wait until she was done?

Turns out, they did.

And that, to me, was one of the most exciting consequences from this summer: Distance swimming got more TV air time. People around the nation were watching distance swimming. The 800m freestyle was no longer a time for swim fans to stretch, venture to the bathroom, and make popcorn. It was a time—a longer time than many have been used to—for fans to sit on the edge of our seats, glued to the TV, every single length, every single lap.

We swimmers love to joke about the painful and grueling aspects of distance events. “How to swim the 1650. Step One: Don’t.” But deep down, we revere distance swimmers. Distance swimmers are the warriors of the aquatic world, the men and women who willingly tango with the sport’s toughest events. On TV, this engagement looks slower, and therefore, less painful. “Go faster!” you want to yell at the TV, as if milers can magically spin their tempos to match a sprinter. Which may be one of the problematic aspects of packaging and marketing these events, like packaging and marketing a marathon: Distance events are just not as flashy as a 100m sprint.

However, we swimmers know better. We know the pain involved; we know the anguish distance events demand. We revere distance swimmers, and for the first time in a long while, it looks like non-swimmers are starting to as well.

Broadcasting the entire 800m freestyle to a nation-wide audience is a step. It’s a small, short freestyle stroke in the right direction. The message sent when cutting to commercial in 2012 was, “This race isn’t important enough to show in its entirety.” By showing the whole race in 2013, commentators like Rowdy Gaines could talk about some of the underappreciated nuances of distance swimming to mainstream audiences. Distance swimming is a beautiful, and important, part of the sport that has been largely overlooked compared to the flashier and dashier.

When I think about 2013, I think about this: Katie Ledecky, with her talent, efforts, and performances, is making people pay attention to distance swimming. Just like we did when another teenager—by the name of Janet Evans—took the world by storm back in the late 1980s. It helps to break world records, something Ledecky did this past summer. But this perception shift is also getting younger age groupers watching distance swimming, signing up for oft-nerve wracking distance events like the 400, the 800, and the 1500m freestyles, watching Ledecky on TV, and saying, “Maybe that can be me.”

This is why, to me, Katie Ledecky should earn the Golden Goggle for 2013 Female Athlete of the Year. Cast your vote now.

Not only for her transcendent performances. But also because Katie Ledecky is changing the perception of distance swimming nation-wide. She’s making people watch 800m and 1500m freestyles. She’s keeping us glued in our seats. And because of these performances, we out there in TV Land finally had the opportunity to watch the 800m freestyle, in its entirety, uninterrupted.

One stroke at a time.

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